Tea by any other name would not taste as sweet

One of the questions most asked of me is “What is your favorite tea?”

I wish I had an easy answer for the reporters and audiences who ask me that question, but my travels along “the way of tea” tells me there can never be only one tea that draws your complete attention day after day. Teas are in a constant state of evolution. Just when you think you have it figured out, you discover that Kenya is making sencha and white teas are being produced in Hawaii. These are just two of the many serendipitous events that make the world of tea so exciting – and challenging.

Having said that, I now admit something my friends already suspect: I have a deep affection for and profound loyalty to the teas of Darjeeling.

Even before the pervasive mists of those magical mountains entered my nostrils and infected my soul, I was a devout believer in the copper red cup and the muscatel aroma of Darjeeling tea. I have imported these teas for years. I made my first trip to the “top of the world” to visit six gardens in 2004. Norwood Pratt, author of The New Tea Lover’s Treasury, and others told me it would change my life. They were right. The dramatic Himalayan vistas, framed by row after row of tea bushes and accented by lush green forests, are intoxicating.
Garden or plantation?

In Darjeeling, what is called a garden is actually a large plantation that may include 1,000 or more acres, and cover 1,000 feet in altitude. Puttabong Tea Estate, just outside the town of Darjiling, stretches for 10 miles and goes from an elevation of 1,500 feet to 6,300 feet!

Steep terrain of a Darjeeling Tea Garden

These plantations, established by the British in1852, are home to hundreds of workers and their families. Most are self-contained communities with their own schools, hospitals, and temples. Characteristics of the Darjeeling tea bushes Tea bushes cultivated in Darjeeling mostly belong to the China jat (jat means variety) and China hybrid and, to a lesser extent, the Assam hybrid. The China jat is more prevalent at higher altitudes because of its ability to survive the cold mountain climate. It is a hardy, multi-stemmed, slow-growing evergreen shrub which, if allowed, can grow up to seven feet in height. It takes three to six years to mature.

Under cultivation, it is pruned for easy picking and trained as a low spreading bush to ensure a maximum crop of young shoots. It’s not unusual to find 60 to 100-year-old Camellia bushes growing in many gardens.

The Darjeeling Flush

Plucking season begins with the first flush of new growth in March and April. Following a short period of dormancy, the plants put forth a second flush that is picked from May into June. The summer months bring daily heavy rains from July until September, yielding a monsoon flush. (I was surprised to find that some of the gardens had switched to green tea production during the high yield monsoon season to secure large international contracts.) The autumnal flush is picked in October and November. The cold winter months of December to February are a period of dormancy.

Small yields lead to high demand

Two and one-half acres yield an average of only 1,200 pounds of dry tea (less than a third of the yield of gardens in Assam or Nilgiri). Each Darjeeling tea bush yields only 3-4 ounces of processed tea in a year. Each pound of fine tea consists of more than 9,000 individually hand plucked shoots!
Top grade first and second flush Darjeelings will bring some of the highest prices found at the Calcutta tea auctions. Many will not make it to auction because international buyers will pay top dollar, euro or yen for the best offerings.

Looking over the lush remote valleys and tea-carpeted mountain slopes, these serene vistas disguise the fact that the tea gardens of Darjeeling are often in a struggle to survive. Aging gardens and counterfeit “Darjeeling” teas are the two main problems facing this 150-year-old industry.

Reviving century-old gardens 

Occasionally, a garden will go dormant until prices rebound or a neighboring garden takes them over. Such was the case at the Ambootia estate where tea was first planted in 1861. After several years of dormancy, this rejuvenated estate is one of the first biodynamic farming operations found in Darjeeling. Using a holistic approach, farming is seen as the interdependent development of minerals, plants, animals and positive cosmic forces that allow nature to bring agriculture to life. 

The Ambootia story makes a great marketing device for western consumers eager to replenish the earth. A walk through the nursery there is unlike anything I had seen.

Rows of young tea saplings, cloned from original “mother bushes,” are nurtured here until they are ready for transplanting in the fields. They take the place of low-yield or diseased bushes that have been dug and removed. The discarded bush could be 40 to 100-years-old.

Young shaded plants in the Ambootia nursery.

These tender saplings begin their lives in bamboo-covered beds where they are protected from the harsh summer sun and the late afternoon hail that can quickly defoliate a tea bush or kill a small-stemmed plant.

Heaps of cattle horns are mounded around a shed waiting to be filled with organic fertilizer and buried in autumn throughout the gardens. These potent capsules slowly release their nutrients and feed the tea plant roots over the winter.

Cow manure and composted grass clippings also are used throughout the gardens. Even herbs are strategically planted to discourage damaging insects and aid soil stabilization. (Landslides are a common occurrence on the steep slopes of Darjeeling’s mountains.) No commercial fertilizers or insecticides are used on this environment-friendly estate.

Not every garden has can afford to make such a drastic change in philosophy. It takes a tremendous amount of money to revitalize an estate with 370 acres of planted tea shrubs that support over 4,000 people (workers and their families). It can take three times as many workers to staff a bio-dynamic estate as compared to a traditional estate.

Protecting the champagne of black teas

Origin names such as Scotch, Champagne, or Darjeeling instantly communicate a certain cachet. These appellations speak volumes of information to consumers. Consequently, the perceived value of these drinks is generally higher than their generic counterparts. Each beverage reflects its origin and environment in its taste.

This is also true of Darjeeling tea. No other tea in the world carries the distinctive muscatel overtones and bright coppery color of a tea from the Darjeeling region of upper India. Its appearance, liquor, and aroma are instantly recognizable by tea drinkers worldwide.

Plucking tea in a Darjeeling tea garden.

A Darjeeling China bush will not produce the same muscatel tones if taken from its nest on the mountain and planted in the lowlands of Doars or Assam. Darjeeling teas owe their unique flavor partly to the type of bush and partly to the climate. We borrow the term terroir from our wine friends in order to explain this phenomenon.

The 86 gardens found in the Darjeeling region annually produce around 22 million pounds of tea. Yet it is estimated that 88 million pounds of tea, often marked as “Pure Darjeeling,” finds its way into the market each year. This counterfeit tea may be a copper-colored light tea grown and processed in Sri Lanka or Kenya, or it might be tea brought across the mountains from neighboring Nepal or Bhutan. The Tea Board of India and the Darjeeling Planters Association have decided that to protect their unequaled reputation—and prices—their product must be trademarked and verified.

What does the future hold for Darjeeling teas?

To make the name Darjeeling distinctive, the Tea Board of India has designed a logo now used by all producers, packers, and exporters of Darjeeling tea. Application must be made with the Tea Board of India for its use. Minimal fees, based on tonnage sold, are collected in exchange for the right to use the mark in packaging or advertising. Hopefully, this branding will give assurance to consumers that they are buying authentic Darjeeling tea.
Our evolving tea drinkers, like single malt scotch and single barrel bourbon collectors, are looking for rare, one-of-a-kind offerings like single-estate first and second flush Darjeelings. This growing market, coupled with the 2010 drought that has diminished production 20-30%, means prices are sure to increase in 2011.
This travel feature by Bruce Richardson first appeared in Fresh Cup magazine.  He is the co-author with Jane Pettigrew of The New Tea Companion.

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